This year’s budget legislation technically reduces state appropriations to the K-12 school system by 2.55 percent, or $78.2 million. But during floor activity on related legislation, lawmakers have repeatedly noted Oklahoma’s school system will nonetheless see an increase in total funding due to a flood of federal COVID-19 money.
“It is a fact that K-12 education will have more funding next year than they have in the current budget year,” Rep. Kyle Hilbert, a Bristow Republican who is vice-chair of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, told lawmakers.
Oklahoma’s share of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding includes $160 million sent to the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Most of that money is being distributed to schools based on each district’s share of low-income students who qualify for the federal Title I program.
Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, a Muskogee Republican and former school administrator, told senators the federal funds can be used to replace the reduction in state appropriations.
“The federal government has given education, common education, $160 million—$16 million of that goes to State Department of Education, the other $144 million is going to the schools based on their Title I funding,” Pemberton said. “I’ve looked at that list. The school districts are going to get quite a bit of money. They can use that money pretty much how they want to.”
He said schools could use the money for a wide range of uses, citing as examples remediation, reading programs, tutorial programs, and software packages.
While the shift to distance learning this year created potential new expenses for schools, with much emphasis placed on closing the “digital gap” for low-income students, lawmakers say schools can use federal funds to cover those costs.
“Each one of those school districts, I believe, could go ahead and facilitate the purchase of Chromebooks or whatever device they need, and that could be coded back,” House Appropriation and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, told lawmakers during recent discussion of budget legislation.
He also noted that schools have lower expenses today for operational costs like utilities and fuel due to the current closure of physical buildings.
“There should be some savings there that they could go ahead and invest if they needed to,” Wallace said.
Based on publicly reported data for the 2018-2019 school year, it is estimated this year’s school closures will generate up to $300 million in savings for districts.
“There are dollars out there that can easily fill in,” Pemberton said.